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Valuing diverse forms of contribution

In this video, John Gilroy and Denise Beckwith share different perspectives on disability and contribution.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Valuing diverse forms of contribution.
JOHN GILROY: Many Aboriginal communities don’t have a definition of disability equivalent to the English language of disability, because people come up with ways to have their own role in how they contribute to communities. So if a person is experiencing challenges in walking, then they can contribute to the community by looking after the young, the youth, handing on knowledge, doing a range of different activities. I remember when one of my aunties had her foot amputated as a result of diabetes. She had to leave work, because– she was working in aged care.
But what happened was, she went back, and she basically– her role that she made up was sitting down and helping many of the elders knit, because their hands– they were struggling to knit. So she would help them. And she ended up driving to Sydney with a couple of my aunties and bought these specific knit– I don’t know what those knitting sticks are called, needles or something, I think– and it was for people who have frailty in their hands. So she drove up here and you can imagine, had a good day out. And they went back, and these needles sit like little gloves, and they were knitting. They were knitting slowly, but they were knitting.
So she ended up not wanting to get a paid job again. She loved being a volunteer. So she’s there, not just with her own family, but her friends were in the nursing home as well. So it ended up with having many people who were not residents in this nursing home come in and join them. And they’re making humongous blankets, selling them for hundreds of dollars. It was fantastic. And that was her way, because in our family, and I think like many Aboriginal communities, whether or not you have a disability, you’re accepted as part of the family, as part of– it’s who you are.
And even talking about the concept of disability in some communities is seen as quite insulting, because Aboriginal people have always been labelled and judged as being different to non-Aboriginal people. They’re seen as abnormal, as different, as not normal. And then when you put that layer of disability on top, it’s quite degrading, because of the deficits base that this concept of disability is built on top. So the structure of this concept of disability is deficit based, it’s not strengths based. And it’s also connected to capitalism. So if you can’t work because you’re not productive, it’s because you have a disability– we have a way of fixing that, disability support pension. That’s why the pension is there, and all that.
So, in Western society, contribution is connected to capitalism, to productivity, to the economy. But in many of the Aboriginal communities, the economy’s completely different. It’s not capitalist. It’s completely different. And contributions are based on what you can and can’t do. It kind of understands the strengths and weaknesses of being an individual, and the strengths and weaknesses of being a whole community.
DENISE BECKWITH: A good life is being able to make decisions about what you actually contribute, and how you actually contribute. It’s not about having it made for you. So often, society places emphasis on being able to participate and contribute,
but in the following ways: having families, being able to vote, and being able to work. They are the three ways of contribution that are valued in society. Some people with disability are not going to have families. Some may, but some aren’t going to. Some aren’t going to actually be able to work, because they may not want to work or they may not have access to the supports that they need to make it viable for them to work.
And being able to vote– a lot of people with disability don’t vote. They’re not even on the electoral roll in an Australian context, because it’s viewed as– “Oh, that’s too hard.” So if you’re not on the electoral roll or you don’t work, you’re going to be viewed as lesser than, or othered. And so that’s what the issue is, is that when you talk about contribution, it needs to be viewed as a wider thing– because, I participate in my life every day, because I get up and I engage with society. So I’m a participant, and I’m a contributor, because believe it or not, even if I received some sort of government, financial support, that money still goes back into society.
It’s not like you keep that money and you save that money and you don’t buy anything– because I can guarantee that I don’t make my own food. I don’t make my own clothes. So I have to buy those things. So therefore, I’m a contributor. People contribute by smiling every day, or just being present every day. I contribute in a class context when I’m studying, because I contribute to the class. People with disability require personal care assistants, require different services being provided to them. That creates employment. Diversity brings richness in a community. Disability actually brings accessibility to a community that is universally beneficial– to older people, to lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex people. It is– just to everybody.
So therefore, universality and diversity should be embraced, and seen as a benefit. And that is the contribution that people with disability make by being different.

In the above video, John Gilroy and Denise Beckwith describe some of the diverse ways that people with disabilities contribute.

As the video presenters illustrate, people with disabilities are making valuable contributions to society, but these contributions are sometimes not recognised by the wider community. Often this is due to a lack of awareness, or to a range of preconceptions about disability and contribution. Let’s explore an example of such preconceptions, and how they might be combatted.

Don’t DIS my ABILITY was an educational campaign in New South Wales, Australia, which ran in 2015. The campaign aimed to challenge preconceptions around disability. By using disabled ambassadors, and organising many events, the project focused particularly on helping non-disabled people to recognise what people with disabilities have to offer.

Have a look at their website and think about what kinds of contributions are being emphasised:

In one of their videos, “Don’t DIS my ABILITY — Say it to my face”, school children respond to photographs of two people with disabilities. All the children’s comments assume that neither person will be able to do anything much, and that they just need pity. Then, the children are introduced to the people in the photos — one an actor and the other a Paralympic gold medallist. Afterwards, the children talk about how interesting both people are and clearly recognise the contributions they are making. This example shows what a potentially powerful campaign this has been.
At the same time, Don’t DIS my ABILITY focuses on showing people with disabilities that make the same or similar contributions to society as non-disabled people. They are shown as equally productive and useful members of their communities. It is incredibly important to value these more ordinary forms of contribution. We explore this theme further in the Thinking through Disability course, where we critique common assumptions that people with disabilities are “brave” and “inspirational” and discuss the importance of valuing an “ordinary” life.

Talking points

  • What are some of the diverse ways people with disabilities are contributing to society?
  • What are some of the reasons why diverse forms of contribution are not always valued?
  • What preconceptions about people with disability being able to contribute have you witnessed in your own context?
  • Do you think campaigns like the Don’t DIS my ABILITY campaign are helpful?
  • Do disabled people need to be extraordinary in order to be seen as contributors? Or is there a benefit to valuing more ordinary forms of contribution?

As the clip with the school children shows, people with disabilities can be assumed to be unable to contribute to society at all. But the clip also raises the question we discussed at the beginning of the week: Are there other kinds of contributions that we also need to value? In the next step you will explore some possible answers to this question.

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